Cracking wise – the art of the hard-boiled sentence

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe with Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

Writing hard-boiled crime fiction isn’t as easy as it may seem. Although it appears to have a consistent structure, and a heavy emphasis on style, putting the elements together to create truly memorable lines takes skill. The prose of writers such as Dashiell Hammett and, my personal hero, Raymond Chandler, make it seem effortless but that’s because they worked hard to perfect their craft. Their cynical, world-weary private investigators, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, set the bar high when it comes to wise-cracking dialogue and vivid descriptions.

Here are a few examples:

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

“I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.”

“Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me.”

“My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery.”

Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man

“She grinned at me. ‘You got types?’
‘Only you darling – lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”

“…I guess I can put two and two together.”
“Sometimes the answer’s four,” I said, “and sometimes it’s twenty-two…”

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

“I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights.”

“She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.”

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

Not only is it very difficult to write hard-boiled fiction well; it’s just as hard to write it in a deliberately bad way. That takes a certain skill too.

I’ve written before about the International Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for bad opening lines. Every year writers are invited to submit entries for “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” across a number of different genres, including crime/detective fiction.

The overall winner of the 2015 contest was Joel Phillips with this entry:

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.

Some of the best entries (in my opinion)in the crime/detective category were given ‘dishonourable mentions’:

I knew that dame was damaged goods when she first sauntered in, and I don’t mean lightly scratched and dented goods that a reputable merchant like Home Depot might offer in a clearly marked end display sale; no, she was more like the kind of flashy trashy plastic knockoff that always carries a child-choking hazard that no self-respecting 11-year-old Chinese sweat shop kids would ever call theirs.  Tom Billings

The janitor’s body lay just inside the door, a small puncture wound below his right ear made with a long thin screwdriver, the kind electricians use and can often be found in the bargain bin at the hardware store and come with a pair of cheap wire cutters that you never use because they won’t cut wire worth a damn and at best will only put a small indent in the wire so you can at least bend it back and forth until it breaks.  E. David Moulton

And my personal favourite, especially with the clever nod to Chandler’s PI:

When private detective Flip Merlot spotted the statuesque brunette seated at the bar of his favorite watering hole, he was drawn to her like a yellow cat to navy blue pants, and when he sidled up next to her he felt fuzzy all over, kind of like dark blue corduroys get when they’re matted with yellow cat hair.  James M. Vanes

But let’s turn from the ridiculous to the sublime… here’s Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall going head to head in The Big Sleep (1946):

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Humanist celebrants celebrate humanity

At the beginning of 2016 I was accepted onto a British Humanist Association (BHA) training programme to become a humanist wedding celebrant. It’s been a fascinating experience and I’m looking forward to working with couples to help them shape meaningful and memorable, non-religious wedding ceremonies. You can find me at

As someone who loves words, perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve become interested in the words humanism, humanist, and celebrant.

For as long as I can remember (well, since the age of 10 or 11), I’ve identified myself as an atheist, which is defined as:

 A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

I’d been aware of humanism but hadn’t really grappled with the concept until my father died in 2009 and we arranged to see a humanist funeral celebrant. Even in the midst of my grief, I was deeply impressed by the whole process, which placed my lovely old Dad centre stage. Talking about Dad with the celebrant helped us all to start to deal with our loss. The funeral service itself (which ended with us walking out to the strains of The Goons’ Ying Tong Song) felt very much like a celebration of my Dad’s life. It was a relief to begin thinking about how wonderful he was, rather than the desperately ill man he had become.

Fast forward a few years and through a number of life experiences and I came to realise that while I am an atheist, I am also a humanist and have been living my life according to the priciples of humanism. I just hadn’t found the word for it.

Humanism is an ethical philosophy of life that is based on respecting and caring for one another and the world we live in, without the need for a god, or gods. Humanists use reason, experience and shared human values to make sense of the world. Humanists believe we have only one life and that it is up to all of us as individuals, as well as society as a whole, to live with purpose and meaning.

Stephen Fry describes the humanist approach to life in this video clip:

So, what is a humanist celebrant? Wikipedia gives us this:

A humanist celebrant or humanist officiant is a person who performs secular humanist celebrancy services for weddings, funerals, child namings, coming of age ceremonies and other rituals. Some humanist celebrants are accredited by humanist organisations…

The Online Etymology Dictionary defines celebrant as coming from

the French célébrant, “officiating clergyman”, or directly from Latin celebrantem, the present participle of celebrare.

Humanist celebrants help people celebrate and mark the important rites of passage – birth, marriage and death. Sharing these moments with family, friends, and the wider community, seems to be a vital part of being human. Traditionally, of course, these rituals take place within the context of a religious service.

Yet we live in an increasingly secular society and many people are looking for non-religious ceremonies that truly focus on the individual. Couples planning a wedding often want a more flexible and personal ceremony than that offered by a register office. The latest figures on marriage in England and Wales from the Office for National Statistics, as reported by the BBC, revealed that while the number of marriages declined by 8.6% in 2013, civil ceremonies accounted for 72% of all marriages that year.


BHA celebrants have been conducting humanist weddings since 1896 – that’s 120 years. Strange, then, that humanist weddings are not yet legal in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, humanist weddings have been legally binding since 2005 and over the past decade have increased from about 50 per year to well over 4,000.

The BHA is actively lobbying government to legally recognise humanist wedding ceremonies. In the meantime, the BHA’s Humanist Ceremonies™ network of more than 300 trained and accredited humanist wedding celebrants continues to conduct  weddings for couples in England and Wales. Couples complete the legal paperwork first at a register office, and then work with a celebrant to create a unique wedding ceremony, choosing the venue, readings, music and vows that truly reflect who they are.

Put simply: humanist celebrants celebrate humanity.















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The perils of pronouncing Irish names

I love Irish names with their soft Gaelic sounds. I’m half Irish so when my first daughter was born I wanted to reflect her heritage by giving her an Irish name. We chose Siobhán – a name that wikipedia tells me is derived from Anglo-Norman, Latin, Greek and ultimately Hebrew.  Siobhán is the equivalent of Joan – a feminine version of John.

My daughter loves her name now but got more than a little tired of having to explain how to pronounce it when she was at school. It isn’t ‘See-o-ban’ as most people wrongly guess when first confronted with it. It’s pronounced ‘shiv’ + ‘awn’.

It was therefore with some amusement that I heard about how, when announcing the nominations for Best Actress at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards, actor Denis Quaid famously mispronounced Irish actress Saoirse Ronan’s name as ‘Shee-sha’. It’s actually pronounced ‘sear + sha’ and means freedom, or liberty.

On The Late Show in the US, she spent some time talking about the Irish accent with host Steven Colbert – and he then challenged her to tell him how to pronounce a sequence of Irish names. Siobhán was included, as well as Tadhg, Niamh, and Oisin. But the prize for the  most difficult Irish name to pronounce has to be Caoimhe – watch the clip to find out…

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Decoding the Russian alphabet

A recent trip to St Petersburg in Russia was a delight. I was there at the end of June, during the period of the White Nights, when the sun doesn’t set. It’s a magical time to visit this gorgeous city but among all the world-class art galleries, stunning baroque architecture, and fascinating history I found myself seduced by the language and in particular the beautiful Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

Upper case forms of the Russian alphabet. Photo credit: wikipedia

The Cyrillic alphabet is named after the Byzantine scholar Cyril who with his brother Methodius created the first slavic writing system in the 9th century to help translate the Bible. The modern Russian alphabet currently has 33 letters: 10 vowels, 21 consonants, and 2 signs (ь, ъ). But in common with other languages, various changes have been made to the printed form of the language over the past 200 years, including the introduction of new letters, the eliminations of others, and attempts at making spellings more consistent.

Because the Cyrillic alphabet has some letter forms that look similar to our English Latin alphabet, there is a temptation to assume they have the same sounds. For instance, there are letter forms that look like our A, B, C, E, H, K, M, N, O, P, and T. And, although the A, E and K sounds similar to ours, the C turns out to sound like our S, and the H turns our to be the sound for our N. There’s also a letter that looks like a backwards N that sounds like our I and a letter that resembles a lower case r that sounds like a G.

As the days passed, I found myself looking at shop signage and, with the aid of my phrase book, trying to decode what I was seeing. The quickest route to unlocking the treasures of the Cyrillic alphabet turned out to be signs for fast food outlets:

MacDonalds, St Peterburg.


Starbucks Cafe, St Peterburg.


Decoding the Russian alphabet was fun – and has made me seriously think about learning the language, if only to work out what it said on this souvenir t-shirt…

Putin souvenir, St Petersburg.

Thankfully, the internet is a quicker option. A quick search turned up this article on reuters, which tells me that the souvenir slogan – which can be found on t shirts, mugs, even phone covers – says “The most polite of people”. Maybe I’ll just stick to the fast food chains.



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Bett Slapper: welcome to the world of spoonerisms

Sepp Blatter - or Bett Slapper? Photo credit:

Last week’s arrest in Zurich of seven members of FIFA (football’s world governing body) threw an intense spotlight on the subsequent re-election of FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter.

But amid all the column inches written and all the media and internet speculation circulating about Mr Blatter, there was one wonderful moment that brought some much-needed relief. On BBC Radio Four’s Any Answers programme, someone unintentionally (but hilariously) referred to FIFA’s president as Bett Slapper, instantly bringing to my mind an image of Mr Blatter with huge hoop earrings and an off-the-shoulder leopard-print top like a barmaid from Coronation Street, or a Carry On… film.

This kind of effect where sounds get mixed up to produce a phrase with a different meaning to the one intended is called a spoonerism. This particular speech error is named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), an Anglican priest and Oxford scholar. Although there seem to be many examples of his own spoonerisms, it seems likely that most of these were made up and circulated by his students.

Famous examples include:

A toast to “our queer old dean”.

It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.

Will nobody pat my hiccup?

When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out.

A well-boiled icicle.

Apocryphal or not, such accidental linguistic mix-ups make for much amusement and the term ‘spoonerism’ seems to have been established by 1921.

Other forms of spoonerisms were named kniferism and forkerism by American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. They refer to speech errors where syllables from the middle of a word are switched (kniferism) and where syllables from the ends of two words are switched (forkerism). Examples of kniferism as cited on wikipedia include:

  • a British television newsreader referring to the police at a crime scene removing a “hypodeemic nerdle;
  • a television announcer saying that “All the world was thrilled by the marriage of the Duck and Doochess of Windsor

While most spoonerisms are unintentional slips of the tongue (my own common spoonerism is par cark instead of car park), spoonerisms can be a source of deliberate and clever wordplay.

British comedian and comic writer Ronnie Barker excelled at this sort of linguistic nonsense. I’ll leave you with this classic Two Ronnies sketch called Dr Spooner Revisited:


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When is a sign not a sign? When it’s a ghostsign…

I’ve got an eye for signage and typography and without being an expert I certainly know what I like. And I love ghostsigns – those lovely, faded, handpainted signs you sometimes see on the sides of buildings. I first started noticing them a few years ago and when I joined Instagram last year I finally found a place to publish my ghostsign photos.

Here’s a ghostsign I spotted high up on the side of an old building in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, Australia a couple of years ago:

Ghostsign, Melbourne. ©Sue Walder 2013

And another seen in Uzes, France:

Ghostsign, Uzes, France. ©Sue Walder 2013

There are plenty of ghostsigns around if you look for them – you’ll find them in cities, towns and even villages up and down the UK. They were the billboards of their day but were created by highly skilled signpainters rather than print and digital technology.

I often wonder what these beautiful signs would have looked like in all their freshly-painted glory – they must have been dazzling. Certainly more aesthetically pleasing than most of the shop signage and billboards on our high streets today.

It’s also interesting to try to puzzle out the words and images and wonder about the history of the sign and the company or product being promoted.

Here’s one of my favourite ghostsigns, located on Heath Street, Hampstead in north London. It says “Established 1746 Chas B King Estate Agent Decorator Gas, Hot Water & Sanitary Engineer.” Clearly an industrious man, that Chas King. And I love the fact that the premises are still used as an estate agents today – Goldschmidt of Hampstead.

Ghostsign, Hampstead, London. ©Sue Walder 2014

A similar pleasing continuity with the past can be seen on the corner of Leicester Road and the High Road, in East Finchley, London above an off licence. You can just about make out the words “Grocery Wines, Spirits Bottled Beers Agents for Meauxs & Thornes”:

Ghostsign, East Finchley, London ©Sue Walder 2014

I recently went on a fascinating walking tour of Stoke Newington, in north London to see some wonderful ghostsigns – some of which are over a 100 years old.  The tours are run by Sam Roberts, who runs the Ghostsigns website and blog, and if you’re at all interested in signage, typography, and local history I’d strongly recommend you join one.

Stoke Newington has many fine ghostsigns due to the rapid development of the area in the 19th century. The fact that Stoke Newington village has Conservation Area status means that many of these old signs are not lost due to demolition and high rise development.  As Sam points out, these lovely palimpsests are not entirely safe as they are still at the mercy of London’s weather, pollution, and the whims of local landlords.

Here’s a couple of shots I took on the day (bad weather didn’t dampen our enthusiasm):

Cakebread & Robey ghostsign, Stoke Newington. ©Sue Walder 2015

Protected ghostsign, Stoke Newington. ©Sue Walder 2015

This beautiful ghostsign advertising fountain pen repairs by Walker Bros has been awarded Local Listed status by the Hackney Society and English Heritage – it is also the sign that first got Sam Roberts interested in the history of ghostsigns. You can just see another large (and blue) ghostsign on the left-hand side of the building.

Here are a couple I’ve spotted in my own manor – Finchley, north London:

This one – for Edw. Croft, Contractor & Removals – appears to be set within a brick frame and the handpainted letters have a lovely drop shadow. I find the modern signage around it so ugly in comparison.

Ghostsign, North Finchley. ©Sue Walder 2014

This glimpse of an old ghostsign (you can just make out the word Electric) in Finchley Central was revealed when a billboard was replaced. It is covered up again new with a new billboard.

Ghostsign, Finchley Central. ©Sue Walder 2014

And here’s one from Brighton, in West Sussex:

Ghostsign, Brighton. ©Sue Walder 2014

I particularly like this shot as it juxtaposes an old ghostsign (high up – Dyeing and Cleaning Works) with a modern handpainted sign of Jimi Hendrix and Brighton Guitars – possibly a ghostsign of the future?

And finally – a ghostsign that might not technically be a ghostsign. However, it’s definitely an old, handpainted sign that gives us a glimpse into times gone by and miraculously it’s still here, in Spitalfields, in the East End of London.  To me it’s a work of art:

If you want to spot a ghostsign, Sam Roberts recommends not just looking up but also to look back over your shoulder.

Happy ghostsign hunting!

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Buffing up on Buffy speak…

I missed the now cult TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer first time around but I’m currently watching my way through the third series with my teenage daughter.

Created by writer-director Joss Whedon, Buffy is an American TV series which originally aired from 1997 to 2003.  One of the distinguishing features of the series is its playful and inventive use of language – particularly the dialogue spoken by the slayer herself and her friends (the Scooby Gang).

The series turns on its head the whole cinematic trope of the ‘helpless blonde girl getting killed’ – in that Buffy has super strength and, although still attending Sunnydale High School, slays the vampires and demons that plague the town, which sits atop the ‘Hellmouth’.

Bonnie Kneen wrote a brilliant analysis of the language of Buffy in an Oxford Dictionaries  blog post.  The use of ‘in’ words for the gang is an important feature. They talk of ‘slayage’ and ‘kissage’, they use compound words, and incorporate pop culture references. Nobody ‘freaks out’ – they ‘wig’.

And, as Bonnie Kneen points out the show has given us new ways of talking -  “it was Buffy, both the film and the TV series, that popularized the use of much with a ‘preceding adjective, infinitive verb, or noun phrase, forming an elliptical comment or question’. (Geek out, much?)”

Here are a few quotes from the show to give you a taste:

“Yeah, I’m also a person. You can’t just define me by my Slayerness. That’s… something-ism.”

“Yeah, you’re the Slayer. We’re, like, the Slayerettes.”

“It’s officially nippy. So say my nips.”

“If the apocalypse comes, beep me.”

“Oh my god, he’s looking at her! He’s got his filthy, adult, Pierce-Brosny eyes all over my Cordy.”

“He got hit by the Buffinator. Now he’s powerless.”

“I’m jonesing for a little brainless fun.”

“No candles? Well, I brought one. It’s extra flamey.”

Analysis is fine and dandy but there’s nothing like going direct to the source to really grasp the Buffyness of Buffy. If you’ve never seen an episode of Buffy I strongly recommend you head over to Netflix.

In the meantime, here’s a video clip on Buffy speak … tempted, much?

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Bringing “Who’s on first?” to life with typography

I love the sound of words and I love looking at words. So, I tend to think that kinetic typography is a wonderful thing.

Of course, it must be done well, otherwise it can just get in the way of enjoying the text. But here’s an excellent example of kinetic typography done well – it’s Jimmy Zito’s interpretation of the legendary Abbott & Costello routine “Who’s on first?”

Abbott & Costello were a hugely popular American comedy double act in the 1940s and 50s, appearing in films, TV, on radio and the stage. “Who’s on first?” is a routine full of quick-fire verbal patter or wordplay developed while they performed in vaudeville in the late 1930s. Here’s one version.

The comedy springs from the increasing confusion and exasperation felt by Costello as he tries to understand the names of baseball players as outlined by Abbott and their positions on the team. It’s so simple, and so brilliant.

I think Jimmy Zito’s film manages to enhance the fast-paced back-and-forth of the two comedians. It makes you really focus on the words. And that surely is a good thing. Check it out:

Who’s on First Typography from jimmy zito on Vimeo.


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The joy of slang

Love it or loathe it, slang (or non-standard English) is all around us. Language purists try in vain to impose rules that would keep language constrained to what they would define as ‘proper’ usage but the joy of English (and of slang) is that it throws off all attempts to tie it down.

Slang is inventive and playful and shows how flexible the English language is. More than anything – it’s fun.

Here’s a lovely short film exclusively featuring London slang (past and current) called ‘Be Lucky’. It was made by photographer and filmmaker Jenny Keogh with the help of slang lexicographer Jonathon Green (compiler of Green’s Dictionary of Slang).

Here’s what Jenny says about it on her website:

‘Be Lucky’ is a film celebrating London slang. Loaded with humorous insults and exchanges, it includes everything from Cockney to Street slang throughout the last five decades. This film packed with 94 slang phrases, is sure to educate and entertain people in London and beyond. The basic plot is based on gossip about a couple who were thrown out of the local boozer. Jenny Keogh & Jonathon Green have combined their skills to bring the written slang dictionary to life. This film aims to preserve London slang of the past whilst highlighting slang used today. They hope to make a series. Slang is forever evolving and in itself is a language, created by people for the people. Enjoy it. Share it. Celebrate it!

So – here it is:

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The lost art of letter writing

There’s a generation of young people for whom letters – especially handwritten letters – must seem old-fashioned and quaint. In an age of instant communication via text, emails, Twitter and Facebook, most young people won’t have written any letters themselves, except perhaps to the tooth fairy, or Santa, or the occasional thank-you note.

But here’s the thing: even if most of us are too ‘time-poor’ to sit down and craft letters on a daily basis, most people surely still get a thrill out of receiving one. So the art of letter writing may well be lost but our fascination with letters endures.

The attention being given to the First World War during this centenary year is making me think of my paternal grandfather, Alfred Walder, who fought in the war and survived. Sadly, he died just after I was born so I never got to know him.

One of the few things I have from my grandfather is a handwritten letter, dated 15th June 1920, in a battered wallet (see image at top of page). The letter is from his brother, my grand-uncle, Percy who was serving on a dreadnought battleship HMS Temeraire in London. It begins:

My Dear Bro Alf, Winnie & Babs.

The letter doesn’t contain much in the way of news but it is brimming with cheerfulness and love. The Babs referred to is my uncle John, who was a newborn at this point and it seems grandad had just sent Percy a photograph of Winnie and the baby.

He closes with:

I remain your Loving and Affec. Brother Perce xx

Give these to Winn and Baby xxxxxxxx

And these? to you, Wonder xxxxx

PS I am keeping a four hour watch whilst writing this. I guess you’re between the sheets. Goodbye.

I find this letter genuinely moving. I never met my grandad or Percy but having heard how close they were, these flimsy sheets of paper provide a connection to the past and a little glimpse into their lives.

My grandad survived WW1, even though he was in a cavalry unit. Fortunately, he was kicked in the knee by a horse rather badly while in France and was shipped back to England. My father always spoke of grandad’s amazing affinity with, and love of, animals so it was especially pleasing to discover a couple of handwritten notes in the battered wallet that provide recipes for dealing with horses.

One is titled “To Quiet A Mare or Gelding”:

1 dram oil of Cummings, 1 dram oil of Carraways, 1 dram oil of Cassia, 12 drops oil of Rhodium. Rub a few drops on bit or nose…

There are other recipes for Appetite Powder, Oils to Make a Horse Follow You, and (ironically) How to Quiet A Kicker. Maybe grandad forgot to give that horse in northern France his quietening dose… If grandad hadn’t received the wound that sent him back to England things may well have turned out very differently. If he hadn’t survived the war, my father wouldn’t have been born, and I wouldn’t be writing these words.

But you don’t need to be related to someone to find their lives and times of interest. One of my favourite blogs is Letters of Note, run by Shaun Usher, who describes it as an “archive of fascinating correspondence.”

I’d urge you to read the blog and follow @LettersofNote on Twitter. The blog has been so successful that a compilation of letters has now been put together in book form.

Letters of Note - Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, compiled by Shaun Usher.

There are letters from the rich and famous as well as the more humble and ordinary. All have something to say, and they say it in a great variety of ways – funny, sad, wise, and flippant. This article in The Guardian tells you more.

Shaun Usher’s favourite letter is one written in 1934 by Robert Pirosh, an aspiring screenwriter, to all the Hollywood players he could think of. It opens with:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady.

He goes on to list many, many wonderful words. It closes with:

May I have a few with you?

Having a word – how could he fail?




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